In Arabic Egypt is called مصر, or Miṣr, and in ancient times the country was known as Kemet, or the black land, due to the alluvial soil which was deposited during the annual inundation of the River Nile. This yearly event gave Egypt its fertile land that enabled it to expand along the length of the river, especially in the Delta where many various crops were, and still are, harvested.
Egypt covers an area of approximately 1,001,450km2 (386,662 miles²) and is bordered by Israel and the Gaza Strip in the north-east; the Red Sea in the east; Sudan in the south; Libya in the west; and the Mediterranean Sea in the north. It is the 3rd most populous country in Africa and the most populous in the Middle-East with the majority of its estimated 80 million people living on, or near, the banks of the River Nile. Only 5.5% of the total land area is actually used by the population, the area that borders the River Nile as well as a few oases, the other 94.5% being uninhabitable desert.
The River Nile vertically bisects the Sahara Desert and the area to the west is known as the Western Desert, or Libyan Desert, with the area to the East, as far as the Red Sea, being called the Eastern Desert. The desert itself is very sparsely inhabited with relatively small population centres growing up around oases such as the Fayoum, Siwa, Bahariya, Farafra, Dakhla and Kharga to the west and any areas of habitation being restricted to the many wadis (or valleys) to the east.
Within the Libyan Desert can be found an enormous area of sand which is known as the Great Sand Sea and located within this area are several depressions that have their elevations below sea level. These include the Qattara Depression, which covers an area of approximately 18,000km2 (7,000 miles2) and reaches a depth of approximately 133m (436 ft) below sea level: the lowest point in Africa.
Most of the Eastern Desert lies on a plateau that gradually rises from the Nile Valley to heights of approximately 600m (2,000 ft) in the east. Along the Red Sea coast there are many jagged peaks that reach as high as 2,100m (7,000 ft) above sea level. The Nubian Desert lies to the extreme south of the Eastern Desert, along the border with Sudan, and it is an extensive area of dunes and sandy plains.
The Sinai Peninsula mainly consists of sandy desert in the north with rugged mountains in the south; the summits here towering more than 2,100m (7,000 ft) above the Red Sea. Mount Catherine, or Gebel Katherîna, reigns supreme here at a height of 2,629m (8,625 ft) and is the highest point in Egypt, slightly dwarfing the nearby Mount Sinai, or Moses Mountain (Gabal Musa), at 2,285m (7,497 ft). According to Islamic, Christian and Jewish beliefs, the biblical Mount Sinai was the place where Moses received the Ten Commandments, though not everyone agrees that this particular mountain is actually the biblical one.
The River Nile is nowadays regarded as the longest river in the world and it enters Egypt from the Sudan and flows north for about 1,545km (960 miles) until it exits into the Mediterranean Sea. From the Sudanese border to Cairo, the River Nile flows through a narrow cliff lined valley, which, south of Edfu, is hardly more than 3km (2 miles) wide. From Edfu to Cairo, it is about 23km (14 miles) in width, with most of the arable land lying on the western side. Just north of Cairo the valley merges with the Delta before the River Nile joins with the Mediterranean Sea.
The Delta is a triangular shaped plain, bordering the Mediterranean coastline for approximately 250km (155 miles). Silt has been deposited here by the many tributaries of the River Nile (Rosetta [Rashid], Damietta [Dumyat] and others) and this has made the Delta the most fertile area of Egypt. The Aswan High Dam, however, has reduced the flow of the Nile, the annual inundation now being confined to history, and this has caused the salty waters of the Mediterranean Sea to erode most of the land along the coast. Nowadays a series of four shallow, salty, lakes extend along the seaward extremity of the delta.
Lake Nasser, the world’s largest man-made reservoir, was formed by the building of the Aswan High Dam in 1970. It is approximately 480km (300 miles) long and 16km (10 miles) across at its widest point. Almost two-thirds of this lake is situated in Egypt, and it extends southwards across the Sudanese border.
From ancient times, right through to the modern era, the Nile Valley has been divided into two separate regions, Lower Egypt and Upper Egypt. Lower Egypt, where the Pharaohs wore the red crown, is the area of the Delta, whilst Upper Egypt, where the Pharaohs wore the white crown, is the entire valley south of Cairo (or Memphis during the Pharaonic period).
The land boundaries, which Egypt shares with other countries, are 2,665 km in total and comprise of: Gaza Strip 11 km, Israel 266 km, Libya 1,115 km and Sudan 1,273 km. Its coastline is 2,450 km long which includes the Mediterranean Sea, the Red Sea, the Suez Canal and the Gulf of Aqaba, though any indentations, which are suitable as harbours, are confined to the delta.
Egypt has one of the most diverse economies in North-Africa and the Middle-East with the various sectors employing the following amounts of people: agriculture 32%; industry 17%; services 39%; and tourism 12%.
A predominantly Sunni Muslim country, Egypt has Islam as its state religion. A genuine estimate of the percentages of the various religions is a controversial topic in Egypt, and no two sets of figures appear to match, but it is generally accepted that 80-90% of the population are Muslims. Five times a day the “Adhan”, the Islamic call to prayer, can be heard being broadcast from the loudspeakers on Cairo’s many minarets. There are so many Mosques in the Egyptian capital that it was once dubbed “the city of 1,000 minarets”.
Cairo also hosts a considerable number of church towers due to the Christian minority in Egypt, which makes up about 8-18% of the population. Of these, 90% belong to the native Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria with the other 10% comprising of the Coptic Catholic Church; the Evangelical Church of Egypt; and various other Protestant denominations.
The remaining 2% of the population are Jews, with a number of synagogues being sited around Cairo. Islam, Christianity and Judaism are the only three religions that Egypt officially recognises.
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